Big Ten: Each team's biggest Early Signing Period question
The Early Signing Period is just over six weeks away and programs across the country are looking for answers as they prepare to sign their 2019 classes. We start this week looking at the biggest questions facing each Big Ten program over the next six weeks.
ILLINOIS: Where are the numbers going to come from?
Despite a 4-5 record and defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson stepping down last week, this is not the most dire recruiting situation in the Big Ten. Other programs have it worse, but that is probably little consolation to Illinois fans. After starting the 2019 class off with a pair of four-star commitments last March, the Fighting Illini have had trouble building momentum and currently sit with just nine commitments. High three-star St. Louis defensive end Moses Okpala was a big pick-up last week, but Lovie Smith needs more of those, and fast.
INDIANA: Are there more four-stars in store?
When the final story is written on Big Ten recruiting in the 2019 class, Indiana’s ability to flip four-star running back Sampson James from Big Ten East rival Ohio State may go down as the single biggest get in the conference. That commitment was preceded just a few weeks earlier by another four-star in Florida defensive back Tiawan Mullen. Indiana has only signed multiple four-stars in two previous classes, and the program may not be done. A pair of in-state prospects in linebacker Cameron Williams and wide receiver David Bell are the Hoosiers' best shots at finishing with more four-stars.
IOWA: Who is the headliner?
Looking up and down this list of Iowa’s 2019 recruiting class it is solid, but not spectacular. In that way it feels like the 2016 class, which did not have a four-star but has produced bona fide stand outs like tight end Noah Fant and quarterback Nathan Stanley. There is no A.J. Epenesa or James Daniels – a clear alpha dog – in the group right now. Linebacker Jestin Jacobs was a recent selection into the All-American Bowl in San Antonio this winter, and has a chance to prove there he is four-star material. Maybe the headliner is still out there, with a guy like four-star wide receiver David Bell still on the board.
MARYLAND: When will a coach be named?
If you have followed my writing over the years one refrain you have read often is: Uncertainty is a killer in recruiting. The uncertainty in College Park as we sit six weeks out from the opening of the Early Signing Period is extensive, and chief among those questions is who will be the head coach of the Terrapins? Until a head coach is named recruiting will be held at a standstill. The university did not move quickly in deciding D.J. Durkin’s fate. It will need to move quicker if Maryland is going to have any success in the Early Signing Period.
MICHIGAN: Where will the scholarships come from?
Michigan currently has the Big Ten’s most populated class with 24 commits, but Jim Harbaugh continues to recruit like he has a half dozen spots still on the board. Just last month the Wolverines put out an offer to Kansas City athlete Amauri Pesek-Hickson, who is playing his first year of football and had no other FBS offers. That is an unusual offer for a program that does not appear to have a ton of scholarships left to give. Michigan signed just 19 prospects in the 2018 class so they can likely back-sign a few 2019 guys, and Harbaugh’s meritocracy approach to recruiting has processed out commitments in the past, so options do exist.
MICHIGAN STATE: Are the Spartans about to go on an offer run?
While programs such as Michigan and Wisconsin gone fishing for diamonds in the rough late in the process, Michigan State has mostly stayed the course with prospects it has been recruiting for many months, even years. The class currently features 18 commitments, including a trio of in-state four-stars, and presumably has a decent number of offers still to give. The Spartans have had success with prospects they offered very late in the process, including quarterback Kirk Cousins and defensive back Darqueze Dennard. This feels like another year we could see Michigan State make a late run at some newly-identified targets.
MINNESOTA: Does this class add more before Signing Day?
After landing St. Louis defensive end M.J. Anderson back on Aug. 4, Minnesota had seemed content to see the class close out with the 23 commitments it had accumulated to that point. There were a few existing targets still on the board the Gophers would take if the opportunity arose, but for the most part needs were addressed and the spots had been filled. There has been additional movement in the recent days, however, with offers going out to offensive linemen Ron Carr and Isaiah Hookfin, as well as safety AJ Williams. The Gophers may make a late push for additional commitments after all.
NEBRASKA: How will this season impact recruiting?
The Scott Frost era in Lincoln did not start the way Nebraska fans had hoped, with the Cornhuskers dropping their first six games. Losing does not always equate to poor recruiting results, however. The lack of on-field success, along with a notable amount of attrition since Frost’s arrival, has revealed opportunities for early playing time and few factors resonate as much with recruits as the ability to see the field early. Current results impact recruiting only insomuch as it reveals future potential of the program, and although the wins have not been frequent, the enthusiasm for Frost’s future in Lincoln remains robust.
NORTHWESTERN: Is there a Jeremy Larkin replacement out there?
One of the worst news items coming out of the Big Ten this season has been the career-ending medical condition of Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin, who had to hang up his cleats after a tremendous start to his redshirt sophomore campaign. Running back was a need in this 2019 class even before Larkin’s diagnosis, and it becomes even more pressing now. The Wildcats were a contender for Aaron Young out of Pennsylvania, but he committed to Michigan State last month. Houston-area athlete Ainias Smith is the top target now, but other backs could be targeted depending how that recruitment develops.
OHIO STATE: Home runs or singles?
The fact that Ohio State has won eight-straight Big Ten team recruiting titles has been well-documented. It has been a prominent topic recently because the chance the Buckeyes lead their Big Ten brethren again in 2019 is in serious doubt. Urban Meyer’s three-game suspension was compounded by subsequent questions about his health. The Buckeyes have lost commits, have others looking around and currently sit third in the conference, just barely ahead of Nebraska. So, the question is: Will they hit home runs with top targets like five-star Zach Harrison, or do they limp to the finish line with a few warm bodies to fill out the roster?
PENN STATE: Will this be the Big Ten's best class?
As we just noted, Ohio State has won the last eight Big Ten Conference recruiting titles, but this could be the year it gets unseated and Penn State may have the best shot to do it. The Nittany Lions have 17 commitments in a class that ranks 11th nationally and second in the Big Ten to Michigan. However, Michigan has 24 commitments and less than a 100-point lead on Penn State. James Franklin and his staff have the scholarships available and are taking shots at some big names across the board, including four-stars David Bell, Trevor Keegan and Noah Cain. If you’re handicapping the Big Ten team title race, Penn State is your likely favorite.
PURDUE: Can the Boilermakers sign David Bell?
There are several big targets still left on the board for a class that already has exceeded past efforts, but the one question that is most prominent for Purdue fans is about the state of Indiana’s No. 1 prospect. The Boilermakers will still have a fine class even if David Bell does not sign on, but if they are able to bring in the four-star wide receiver it will be an important get for the offense and an important message to send with regards to future in-state recruiting efforts. Jeff Brohm is trying to make West Lafayette the place to play for in-state prospects, and getting No. 1 in 2019 would give a strong boost to that message.
RUTGERS: Where will the momentum come from?
Late in the 2018 class Rutgers’ recruiting got a nice shot in the arm when quarterback Artur Sitkowski, then a four-star, committed to the program on Nov. 1. The Scarlet Knights would go on to add four more commitments before the Early Signing Period, and seven additions total before the 2018 class was closed out. This year Rutgers has even fewer commits heading into November and no foreseeable momentum booster such as Sitkowski to rev up the class. It is struggling on the field, and only the disaster at Maryland is keeping the Scarlet Knights' class from the Big Ten basement.
WISCONSIN: What happened to the confidence?
We are used to Wisconsin signing small classes and having those largely wrapped up early in the process, but 2019 has been different. The Badgers are making a lot of late offers and several of those offers are the first those prospects have received from a Power Five school. The Badgers are still in on a couple four-stars, such as Rodas Johnson and J.D. Bertrand, but the confidence to sign big-time targets seems to be evaporating based on the recent offers that have gone out.